On September 4th, 2020 Disney released their live-action remake of the famous animated 1998 film, Mulan. Now, I admit I was hesitant to even give this one a try. Considering the lackluster reviews of the live-action The Lion King, the mixed reviews of the live-action remake of Aladdin, and the subpar reactions to the other live-actions, I didn’t really want to give Mulan a chance. But after hearing of their removal of the famous, talking animated dragon Mushu, the adorable cricket, and the romantic tension between the bisexually coded Li Shang, I was curious, what exactly they were trying to do? So, I watched it, trying my best not to let the negative comments and reviews that I’ve read and seen get to me and here’s what I thought: the good, the bad and the ugly.
First, let’s start with the good. What exactly did I like about this film? One of the changes I appreciated—at first—was the splitting of Li Shang’s character into two separate characters. In the live-action Li Shang is no longer Mulan’s captain but is instead Mulan’s fellow soldier, renamed Ling for the part while the commander part is given to a character named Commander Tung. At first, I enjoyed the split. Ling in the beginning of his encounters with Mulan was competitive, playful, and almost flirtatious—everything that could set up a growing romance for a bisexual character.
Despite my knowing that Li Shang’s bisexuality would be erased in the live-action film and replaced by something different, something more like a healthy dose of competitiveness between two guys (Ling and disguised Mulan), I was still hoping the film would develop their romance. Afterall, in a film defying gender roles and what it means on a personal level, it would make sense for the film to keep Ling’s bisexuality, especially considering they no longer have that “uncomfortable” power dynamic of captain and soldier (the director’s words, not mine). Instead, their friendship amounts to a whole ‘lot of nothing.’ After a few heartwarming scenes (about two to be exact) between the two characters, the audience is forced to sort of care about the pair’s friendship despite there being very little development or reason to actually care about why these two decided to be friends. I’m not saying it had to be romantic (though it would’ve added some of the fun and playfulness I saw when Mulan and Ling first meet), but there could have been more scenes developing the pair’s friendship.
Which brings me to the next gripe of the entire movie. There’s a whole a lot of plot—a ton of plot, stuffed with fight scenes, impressive visual shots, and some snappy one-liners that are supposed to mean something to the characters, but there’s no actual character development and a lot of missed opportunities to draw some interesting story parallels.
My biggest gripe with this is cricket’s character, a young child conscripted into the imperial army. He’s innocent, naïve, and adorable. We get the sense we’re supposed to care about him. At the end of the movie, after the Imperial City is ambushed, we even get a scene where Ling looks upon Cricket’s still body and for a moment we think he’s dead. In a way, it represents the loss of innocence both Cricket and Mulan lost after fighting in some nasty fights where their friends and comrades die. And yet why did the scene made me angry? I was angry because I really didn’t care about this character. There’s just no character development of this character. There’s one scene where Cricket does some spinning arrow shot to help Mulan and I guess the audience was supposed to cheer like, Yay, Cricket isn’t useless. But I don’t know that because we never actually really see him being a terrible, clumsy, inexperienced fighter. For all we know Cricket is a master archer from a long line of them and he was just hiding his abilities, like Mulan is, because he’s afraid of dying on the battlefield or something. But no, we don’t get any of that. We get a moment where he does a nifty trick with his arrows and we’re supposed to cheer for him.
And this is a problem throughout the entire movie. We see no deep conversations between Mulan and her gang of friends and yet at every moment of the film these characters are together the movie tries to force you to care about them. For me, specifically, the scene prior to their first fight where they ride into battle the next morning doesn’t work. In this scene, one of the soldiers says something along the lines of, “I’m not sure we’re going to be alive after battle.” And it’s this solemn scene where everyone gets silent, Mulan says something inspirational, and then breaks the silence with a bit of witty humor. I admit, I laughed at that scene and it was actually a little emotional. But I still don’t know anything about these characters. I don’t know what they stand for, where they come from, or why they’re even friends despite being forced into a situation where they’re forced to build some form of comradery.
Even in the villain of the witch fighting alongside Bori Khan. Her story goes that she’s a powerful witch who was cast out by weak men who were afraid of her powerful Chi. The commentary seems to be that men are afraid of powerful women and they’ll do anything to shut a woman of power out. Her character is supposed to draw a parallel to Mulan, who also has a powerful amount of Chi and who also is threatened to be ostracized by her fellow countrymen.
And we see those parallels throughout the film. Whereas Mulan disguised as a man is praised for her strength and resilience by her comrades, the witch is beat down by Bori Khan’s brutish men and constantly reminded that she only has a place in his army because he allows it. In other words, Bori Khan makes the witch believe her power comes from him and him alone. Not through the perseverance the witch endured, not through the training she’s been through, or the magic she was born with. But Mulan, who convinces her own countrymen to trust her by proving herself as an adept soldier, reminds the witch that her power is her own, not Bori Khan’s.
In the end, Mulan convinces the witch to switch sides. The witch betrays Bori Khan, leading Mulan to him and the captured emperor. In the end, Bori Khan kills the witch and she dies in Mulan’s arms. Now I have to admit, I enjoyed the witch’s story. It was powerful and sad at the same time—a tale of redemption and reclaiming one’s own agency. But again, the film falls flat. Rather than seeing the anger and conflict in the witch during the scenes she’s being mocked, the film always opts to show Bori Khan and his men bantering and yelling about revenge. What would have been stronger to the character development of the witch is showing her change in attitude to Bori Khan’s abuse. Show her start off as docile and indifferent at the beginning. Then, as the film progresses and as she sees the strength Mulan exudes have her begin to doubt and fight back Bori Khan. Then, in the scene where Mulan convinces the witch to betray Bori Khan the audience would actually mean something.
Instead of showing the emotional conflict of the witch after Mulan has about a minute conversation with the witch about it “not being too late to choose good,” the film opts to show us the witch take off as an eagle, subjecting us to about a five minute meaningless rooftop chase where the witch simply leads Mulan to Bori Khan and the captured emperor. Why couldn’t we see an emotional conversation between Mulan and the witch so that when the witch dies we’d actually care about her? And yet despite all this I weirdly felt the witch’s character was the strongest character in the film because she had the most character depth.
And the whole film is this mess of a whole ‘lot of missed opportunities.’ It misses out on showing us any of Mulan’s emotions, it misses out on showing us backstory, it misses out on showing us the character depth they’re insisting is there but never actually breaks the surface. I want to care about Mulan. I want to care about her friends, but the film just doesn’t give us a reason to. It’s all plot and characters running around and too little of the characters slowing down and thinking, contemplating.
There’s one scene in particular where Mulan and the witch meet atop a mountain to talk where the witch insists the two of them are the same. It’s a powerful moment and you really see the sadness between the witch and the strength and agency in Mulan. Mulan insists the two are different, despite the audience seeing their similarities. But there’s this powerful moment where Mulan announces her agency, declaring why she fights, why she defies the patriarchy. She says something along the lines of, “I fight for the empire and his imperial majesty,” and the line just made me shove my face into my pillow and scream. Why? Why???
It’s such a gross misunderstanding of the character and a betrayal of why Mulan joined the army in both the animated film and the live-action film. Mulan doesn’t fight because she wants to protect her country. She doesn’t join the army because she has some deep inner desire to become a warrior (even though, yes, it is hinted that she wants to be a soldier). She joins the army because she wants to protect her father from going into battle and dying. She wants to shield her family from the heartache of losing the stability and strength of her family—the family patriarch. And that’s why we loved Mulan in the animated film—she’s an ordinary woman who rises to the task of becoming a well-respected soldier, not out of a desire to prove anything, but out of love and respect to her family.
In the end, what I think really sunk this movie for me is that it took itself too seriously. It was almost as if they took a traditional samurai movie, replaced the names of the characters, and then threw in some homages to the original animated Mulan. The moments I enjoyed in the live-action were the silly, slow moments where the characters grew together. The scene where Mulan peels off her armor, undoes her hair and charges into battle, determined to fight for her friends and family as an instrumental of Reflection blasted really pulled my heart strings. And I would have loved if she had joined her friends and they had fought together, rather than her being a superhero and taking out an entire battalion of soldiers by herself. Afterall, the story is about family and friendship. And yet they isolated Mulan the entire movie.
In the end, this film botched what it was trying to do by not figuring out what it wanted to do with the characters from the very beginning. Was it supposed to be a serious, coming of age story? Was it supposed to be a remake of the original animated Mulan? Was it trying to be something else entirely, or a sloppy fusion of the original and something new? Unfortunately, all those bits are in there, not really committing to anything definitive or substantive which leaves the film a pale skeleton of all the things it wanted to be.